Raising the White Flag: Writing Off the 2010 Philadelphia Phillies

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Raising the White Flag: Writing Off the 2010 Philadelphia Phillies
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I’m done.  I am officially giving up on the 2010 Philadelphia Phillies.

While I have similarly written the team off in recent years and then watched the Phillies rally towards the end of the season, I just can’t see it happening this year. 

Yesterday, they narrowly avoided being swept by the St. Louis Cardinals.  And by narrowly, I mean it required their pitching staff to throw a one-hit shutout.

Despite that, Philadelphia still needed to go 11 innings just to score a run. This was only its second victory since the All-Star break, and the team's first win was practically handed to them by the Cubs.

Despite yesterday’s win, the Phillies are still seven games behind the Braves in the National League East, and show little indication that they are capable of making up such a deficit.

Before the season, many people—myself included —speculated that this could potentially be the greatest Phillies team ever. 

And for the first month and a half of the season, they certainly looked capable of living up to the hype. They were cruising along at 24-13 with a comfortable division lead. 

But then things went inexplicably wrong.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the problems began, but it might have started on May 18th. After crushing the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates the night before, they would be facing them again with ace pitcher Roy Halladay on the mound. 

It felt like a guaranteed win for the Phillies—a game that they could pretty much win without even trying. And although Halladay pitched well in that game, the Phillies were held to only one run and lost the game 2-1.

While the mindset of the players is obviously quite different than the mindset of the fans, it is worth wondering if the team also became somewhat overconfident that night.  Did their early season success—coming after two straight pennants—somehow lead them to believe that they could win without even trying? Was their competitive nature dulled?

The turning point also might have come that Friday when they began Interlegaue play against the Red Sox. They were cruising towards victory when, for the second time this season, Jimmy Rollins had to leave a game with a calf injury. 

Rollins had missed much of the season to that point, and throughout his absence his replacements had played surprisingly well. But it might have been too much to ask for them to do it for an extended period of time. Not only does Rollins typically spark the Phillies offense from the leadoff spot, but he is an excellent defensive player and one of the team’s leaders.

Rollins’ injury also might have hurt the Phillies’ psyches. They had already suffered some bad injury luck with disabled list stints by pitchers J.A. Happ, Brad Lidge, and Ryan Madson. When Rollins went out again, it would have only been natural for the Phillies to start to wonder if they were somewhat snakebitten.

For instance, not long after Rollins returned (and the team looked like it was on an upswing), Chase Utley went out with a thumb injury that will keep him out until August at the earliest.  When you can’t get your expected lineup on the field, the pressure starts to mount for the remaining players.

Regardless of the cause, the Phillies entered a funk that they have yet to emerge from.  Considering the track record of their hitters, there is no real explanation for the lack of offensive success.  While they have been shut down by some star pitchers like Josh Johnson and Chris Carpenter, they have also had troubles against mediocre-to-poor guys like Zach Duke and Ross Ohlendorf. 

The injuries might have contributed to the slump, but injuries alone can’t account for their futility.  For instance, before he got hurt, Utley was having the worst season of his career. 

Jayson Werth got off to a strong start, but has been slumping badly since then.  Shane Victorino has hit for more power this year, but his overall numbers have slipped.  And Raul Ibanez has continued to scuffle as he did the second half of last year.

In comparison, the pitchers have fared better, but they have been somewhat disappointing as well.  While Halladay has mostly pitched well, he hasn’t quite lived up to the “Best Pitcher in Baseball” hype he received before the season.  To his credit, he’s received very little run support, and has been on the losing end of several low scoring games. 

The rotation’s back end, consisting of Joe Blanton, Jamie Moyer (who has now come down with an injury of his own), and Kyle Kendrick, has been terribly inconsistent. They have all provided some strong starts, but have also been atrocious in other games. There is no telling what to expect from any of them. 

Then again, aside from Halladay and Cole Hamels, none of the Phillies' starters was expected to be the type of pitcher who could carry a team to victory.  They were expected to keep the game close with a “quality start” and have the offense put up a lot of runs.  Since their offense has been so underwhelming, it has made their performances look that much worse.

Their bullpen doesn’t seem to be in great shape either.  While closer Brad Lidge has been better than the utter disaster he was in 2009, he has had some shaky outings and has made the ninth inning a nervous experience for Phillies fans. It doesn’t appear that any of their other relief pitchers are especially reliable either.

While it’s bad enough to watch a team underachieve, the worst part about the team is how they seem to play bad baseball. Their offensive slump seems more pronounced by the accompanying mistakes that they make. 

Between fielding errors, poor baserunning, and abysmal clutch hitting, the Phillies are not doing the little things necessary to win games.

Many of these mistakes are hard to explain. For the past few seasons, they’ve been one of the better defensive teams in the league. While part of the problem may be that some of their regulars have missed time, it feels like even their normally sure-handed players are making atypical errors in the field. 

Their running game has taken a major downturn as well. They have been among the league leaders in stolen bases the past few years, and those numbers have been way down in 2010. 

Once again, injuries to Rollins and Utley have not helped in this department, but it still seems as if they aren’t taking advantage of their opportunities.  In addition, they’ve made several baserunning mistakes, and have made outs trying to stretch hits for extra bases.

Worst of all is the team's situational hitting. While it had some problems with this in recent years (the 2008 World Series championship team had notable struggles with runners in scoring position), it seems to be even more pronounced since the offensive slump began. 

The Phillies into double plays.  They seem incapable of advancing runners.  And in situations where they have a runner on third base and less than two outs, their success rate at getting the runner home is horrendous.

It’s maddening to watch a once mighty offense struggle so much.  You can only see Raul Ibanez flail helplessly at a curveball or watch Jayson Werth take strike three so many times before you get disgusted.

Their offense has performed so poorly that the team fired hitting coach Milt Thompson.  Thompson was their hitting coach since 2005 and during his time, they had constantly been among the best offensive teams in baseball.

Was it his fault?  Probably not, but I guess they figured they had to make some sort of move.

Now, their front office is talking about looking for help by making a trade for a starting pitcher such as Roy Oswalt. 

Of course, had they simply not traded ace pitcher Cliff Lee in the offseason, they probably wouldn’t need to look for help.  Management has still not been able to adequately explain why they “had” to trade Lee, and why they got such a poor return for him.

But even with Lee, I don’t know if the team would have fared much better this season, since it’s difficult to win games where you don’t receive any run support. In many of their starts, Halladay and Hamels have pitched well, only to get a loss because the team was held to one or fewer runs.

The team’s only hope is that since their hitters have successful track records will start to play up to their capabilities. There’s a theory that guys like Ibanez, Victorino, and (when he returns) Utley will ultimately have final numbers similar to their career norms. Getting to those numbers would mean an especially hot final two and a half months to the season, which would probably result in an offensive explosion for the team.

But based on the way that this season has gone, I no longer expect to see a season ending hot streak like we saw in 2007 and 2008. After a few years of everything breaking right for them, it just feels like a lot is going wrong. 

It also seems like the other teams in the division are playing better than they did the past few years.  To make up ground in the division, they’ll need the Braves to slump a bit, but it would be hard to imagine that the Braves collapse down the stretch like the Mets did in 2007.

I could be wrong.  Philadelphia could suddenly remember how to hit, go on a hot streak and make yet another late-season run at the playoffs. 

I will continue to watch the team and hope that they turn things around.  But after seeing too many inept offensive performances, and too many mistake-filled losses, I no longer expect it to happen.

 

Originally posted on my blog: Stranger in a Strange Land

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